Paying The Price On Android

Whilst watching a recent episode of All About Android on the TWiT Podcast network, I noticed that as one of the hosts was demoing Plume – a twitter client for his Android tablet – he said that he was using the free version of the app, even though it had ads and that he might upgrade to the paid version as he uses the app a lot.

This remark struck a chord with me. A Twitter client is a pretty important application for most users on their mobile devices, especially for someone who is connected with thousands of people. It becomes a communication and research tool. My Twitter app is very important and considering how much I am going to be using it, I would not hesitate in paying for it—especially if I was happy with the app after using a ‘lite’ version.

So I took to Twitter to try to understand if I was alone in this and to see what other people’s opinions were in regards to Android users as a whole and their likelihood to pay for apps.

One of the first questions I was pondering over was, ‘Why do paid apps perform so poorly on Android compared to iOS?’ and one of my followers @MaximHarper pointed my in the direction of the blog post written by the developer of Papermill, an Instapaper client for Android.

In this post the developer chronicles that even after recieveing a very welcome response from big publications – like The Verge and Lifehacker – after 3 weeks the developer has only sold 411 copies of his app. The developer – Ryan – has priced Papermill at $4 (Instapaper for iOS is $4.99 and is Universal) but the app also requires an Instapaper subscription—this is something Marco requires a user to pay for to access third-party API features.

Ryan says in his post;
‘While people liked the user-experience and design, they felt $4 was too much for an Android app, especially when added to the Instapaper subscription account it would require as a third-party app.’

I think this is a telltale sign of an inherent issue with the Android platform. Marco has made and is continuing to make a living from Instapaper, whilst the developer of an App that offers access to this service — on a platform with a larger install base —can only make $1140 after three weeks. It would seem from this case that Android users do not care for the usefulness of the app or how greatly desgined it is (which is certainly the case with Papermill), if it’s not free – or dirt cheap – then they’re not insterested. But of course, this is only one case.

When Rovio launched Angry Birds on to Android, Peter Vesterbacka – their CEO – was quoted as saying;
‘Free is the way to go with Android. Nobody has been successful selling content on Android. We will offer a way to remove the ads by paying for the app, but we don’t expect that to be a huge revenue stream.’

Rovio launched Angry Birds as a free game on Android, whilst it was 99c on iOS and was a huge success. For Rovio, Android is of course a huge platform and a massive potential stream of revenue and new customers, so they felt it would be better to offer a free version in this market and hope to either make money from ads or from in-app purchases. They were under the impression that they wouldn’t make the same amount of money using their existing business model. So here’s a case of a developer porting a hugely successful iOS app to Android, under the impression that money couldn’t be made with their existing business model.

One of the responses I recieved via Twitter from Michael Norton focused my thinking on the following; since ‘Google Play has a more variable app quality level, paying for apps is necessarily more choosy’. This got me thinking around the idea of the quality of apps in the Google Play Store (Android Marketplace). If apps are generally crappy looking or functioning, should users be more accustomed to paying little to nothing? Basically, if the apps are not very appealing then why part with cash?

In my time spent with Android, I have typically been underwhelmed by the quality of the app ecosystem. On the whole, design is poor – especially when compared to iOS – and performance can be inconsistent, so should we expect to pay for apps that do not live up to expectations? And if this is the culture that has become inherent would users ever expect to pay for apps? Are users becoming used to a potentially sub-par user experience, so do not see a monetary value in it?

Another Tweet recieved, this time from Maxim Harper’ brought the idea of existing iTunes accounts to my attention, as a possibility for allowing Apple to be able to charge more successfully. Because of the iTunes Music Store, many of us already held iTunes accounts with credit cards on file. This way, it meant the barrier to entry was low and Apple were able to entice us in to the App Store by making purchases a simple thing to complete. Google – it would appear – is now trying to get people to sign up for Google Checkout as early as possible, potentially as a play to get themselves in to a situation where that have the iTunes advantage.

Many people mentioned that the amount of Android users that are just being ‘sold’ the devices by the mobile networks, could be skewing the numbers and perception of price. Android is pushed by many carriers as they make larger profits from the handsets and service plans, so the store representatives are encouraged to push these phones to people who are replacing ‘dumbphones’ for their first smartphones. Becasue of this, many of these users will unlikely be using their Android phones in the way the tech-literate do and would therefore not be browsing the Google Play Store for new applications, let alone paying for any. I see this as a possibile explanation for the fact that some users may not be paying high prices, but I dont think this answers the problem as a whole. It just seems that these users would rarely visit the store if at all – they are not a buying market – so this doesn’t explain the proliferation of ‘free’ seen on Android.

I think a popular argument made to me – is that the Android platform doesn’t have any ‘killer apps’ that would make you want to switch to the platform and pay reasonable prices for the apps. For me, Tweetbot and Reeder – on iOS – would be those apps. I have yet to find any apps on any device that work as well as these two do. Some people argue that because apps of this perceived quality do not exist on Android, it makes it an even harder sell to many geeks. However, I think that these apps sell to a specific type of geek and not all geeks. For example, an app like Tasker on Android would be a massive selling point for the type of geek that likes total control and customisation over their handset—the features that this app promotes are pretty awe-inspiring and is something you cannot do on Apple devices

So I think to argue that it’s a case of ‘killer apps’ that makes a user want to pay, is not entirely accurate as one man’s ‘killer app’ is another man’s UI nightmare.

What is becoming clear to me is that as time goes on, more applications are becoming cross-platform and are being ported from iOS to Android—with Path and Instagram being prime examples. These are apps that are inherently iOS designed and have later been ported to the Android platform with varying success. But what is also evident is that in some cases, the existing business models are not moving over with them and developers are having to adapt the way they function, to fit a platform that does not seem to be a big money maker. I have no real answer to why – on the face of it – a large portion of Android users seem to be less happy to part with cash, but this was a conversation that I found interesting enough that I wanted to share some of my thoughts.

UPDATE: Jason Howell, the TWiT host whom I mentioned earlier, took the time to write a thoughtful and interesting reply on his Google Plus profile to this article, this has stemmed an interesting dialog between us. I urge you to check it out